“Looking Backward or Moving Forward?,” October 1, 2017, Jack Gaede, Intern Minister
In my study of Unitarian Universalism, I have often been left in awe at our ability to encounter and accept revolutionary ideas. And yet I have also been consistently surprised by the history of our own self-centeredness.
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Picture it with me…the year is 1543. The printing press has been around for just over a century now, and it has caused quite a bit of scandal. With this new-fangled technology, ideas spread like wildfire; radical ideas, heretical ideas, upsetting ideas, even ideas that threaten the powers that be. Imagine for a moment that you are a well-educated person of means. You have spent most of your life studying science, art, mathematics, theology, and the classics.
Then, one day, a book falls into your hands—a revolutionary book. It is the book by Copernicus that explains his radical theory that the sun does *not* revolve around the earth, that despite all of our best minds and years of thinking, we have been getting it wrong all along. The prevalent myth at the time was that the universe existed for humans, for our flourishing, for our survival. The sun rose and fell so that we would have light and warmth. Up until this point, the Earth had reigned supreme, and all of our ways of knowing had been acquired through a geocentric worldview. Copernicus challenged this supremacy of the earth by re-centering the focus on the sun. With the arrival of this helio-centric lens, the way that we understand astronomy and science changed forever. This decentering of the earth was a revolutionary act, partially because it endangered the power structure of the day. It must have been devastating (both for the peasant and the emperor) to be told that one was astronomically less important than one had previously thought! And I bet that some people got very defensive. For instance, Philip Melanchthon, the Protestant reformer, who said that, “Wise rulers should have curbed such light-mindedness [as that of Copernicus] who moves the earth and stops the sun.” I find it ironic that he attacks the sun-centered worldview of Copernicus as light-minded when Copernicus’s whole point is that we should be more light-minded, as in more centered on the sun whence comes our light. But I wouldn’t want us to miss the gravity of his statement. He is suggesting that a wise ruler should squash this idea, and we know how ideas at this time were squashed. Books were collected, and burned…often along with the author. We see in this quote how threatening it is (and how threatened rulers often feel) when the center shifts.
What does it mean when new centers emerge, when new truths come to light? How do we summon up the courage and the humility to live in the glaring and sometimes harsh light of these new truths? In my study of Unitarian Universalism, I have often been left in awe at our ability to encounter and accept revolutionary ideas. And yet I have also been consistently surprised by the history of our own self-centeredness. UU theologian Paul Rasor summarizes it best when he says, “Liberals want to create a strong and inclusive community, but we often want to do it without giving up anything, without letting down the barriers we erect around ourselves in the name of individual autonomy.”
I understand this tension. Individual autonomy is so important; our free and responsible search for truth and meaning depends on it. But sometimes our own philosophical or theological certainties get in our way. Sometimes they act as barriers separating us from each other. And when we put up too many of these barriers, we begin to realize that we are no longer in a circle of embrace but rather we are in a box, hemmed in on all four sides. Sometimes we realize that we are in an echo chamber. But one of the ways to lower a barrier is to encounter truly and listen deeply to a person whose ideas are different from our own.
What happens, for instance, when a humanist-leaning congregation begins to encounter new types of humanists who aren’t as opposed to religious expression? I recently went to a humanism conference, where there was a panel of distinguished and diverse humanist thinkers. There were many common threads, but the primary one interwoven throughout the weekend was the call to expand our understanding of humanism. They called us to lower the barriers present within humanism that are casting shadows on some of the less-explored nooks of humanist thought. They called us to shine a light on the complexity and diversity of the voices within humanism; humanism today cannot afford to be monolithic or inflexible. Just listen to the words written on this stone that I found in Kendyl’s office. It says, “Nothing is written in stone.”
But these shade-causing barriers demand a little more attention and a quick primer in millennial lingo. You see…the phrase “to throw shade” is lingo meaning to judge harshly or criticize with a stinging bite and a caustic wit. It is sometimes represented in picture form as a person giving side-eye. The core image of light and shadows still exists, because if you are throwing shade, you are turning your back on the shade-recipient. You are refusing to shine your light and love on them, even maybe blocking or eclipsing the light from some greater sun. You are withholding from them understanding and compassion. There are light-hearted forms of throwing shade (don’t get me wrong), but there are also devastating occurrences of walls being built, barriers being erected, and separations being created and sustained that absolutely break our hearts.
Let’s start with the context that I know best, having lived there for half of my life: the Twin Cities. It wasn’t until I got involved in the Black Lives Matter movement that I understood the depth and depravity of the mistake that was made when Interstate 94 was constructed. The city planners of St. Paul had a few different options about where to place this new freeway system, but the route that they chose in 1956 cut right down the middle of a black community called the Rondo neighborhood where over 80% of the city’s African American population lived. It was an up-and-coming neighborhood with black businesses, black homeowners, and the burgeoning centralization of economic power for a community hitherto marginalized. The freeway became a physical barrier separating neighbors and tearing the neighborhood apart. More than 600 black families lost their homes.
In the meantime, four miles up the road, west of St. Paul in Minneapolis, the city planners there built a tunnel to run Interstate 94 underneath an affluent and historic white neighborhood. Isn’t it interesting when we start to study and pay attention to which neighborhoods get displaced or devalued? And which neighborhoods remain intact with city planners going out of their way or even under the way lest they disturb the peace?
As I arrived here in Kansas City, one of my first assignments was to read an excerpt from the book called “Some of My Best Friends are Black.” It is a national exploration of race relations and racial segregation in four different realms: school, neighborhood, workplace, and church. In each of those separate realms, the author Tanner Colby looks specifically at one area of the nation which serves as a case study that best elucidates the problem of racial segregation. For the section on neighborhoods, housing, and real estate, he studies Kansas City and the unfortunate yet intentionally choreographed white flight to suburbia, and the resultant economic depression of the area east of Troost. He discusses the racial contracts that prohibited white families from selling their homes to black families. He discusses the practice of blockbusting that was rampant primarily in the white neighborhoods that bordered the black neighborhoods, and which spread south over 40 some blocks of land just east of Troost. And he discusses the intense but subtle racial coding of the advertisements intended to draw white people from the urban “danger zone” to “safe” white suburbia.
Studying this history was riveting and challenging at the same time, especially when we consider that Kansas City was not the only city with racial contracts and racially coded propaganda. If anything, it was the rule more than the exception. What makes it even more heart-wrenching is knowing that these racist real estate laws and practices have present-day ramifications and not just in Kansas City, but in cities across the nation. Troost Avenue used to be a corridor that was alive with people and traffic, commerce and community, and now many of the businesses along that strip have been closed and some real estate agents still refuse to show any homes east of Troost to white prospective homebuyers, saying seemingly harmless things like, “Oh, you don’t want to live east of Troost.” But what we need to realize is that phrases like these contribute to the structure of systemic racism. Unless we act boldly to dismantle that old prejudice, we will perpetuate the lie that someone else started many years ago, which has caused a long and painful north-to-south scar on this city—an embodied representation of structural racism, much like the scar of Interstate 94 in St. Paul.
It might be easy to say “I oppose white supremacy” when what you picture is white men in khakis with torches or KKK members marching down the street, but what does it mean to take a bold stance against the more subtle forms of white supremacy? White supremacy might look like a kind of thinking that centers white people and their needs over and against the needs of others. Or it might look like allowing a freeway to disrupt a black neighborhood while pushing it underground to avoid disrupting a white one. White supremacy might look like keeping poor people and people of color in specific neighborhoods while lowering and restraining the property values there. Or it might look like inviting (or even manipulating) white people to move out of those very same neighborhoods, taking with them their wealth, resources, and economic boon and allowing them to build and solidify their collective power elsewhere.
This is the real grist, the matters that need to be looked at with a naked eye, which just so happens to be the reason that Kendyl and I will be teaching a class on the concepts of white supremacy starting this week. When sociologists and social critical theorists talk about racism, systemic racism, and structural racism, this is what they mean. And this is the racism that I feel called as a white person to help dismantle. Just as it took a lot of work and energy to dismantle earth-supremacy, it will take a lot of work to dismantle white supremacy and to decenter whiteness. In the meantime, there are people who have historically been on the margins who are consolidating their power, using their voices and continuing to claim their place in this country, in Unitarian Universalism, and in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and churches. Are you listening?
Our history is not pure and blameless; it is complex and messy. One of the strengths of our Unitarian Universalist faith is that it teaches us about the importance of encountering ideas and people of all shapes and sizes, types and colors. And one of the strengths of our faith is to be able to navigate those potentially rough waters. We are not a unanimous, unilateral, or monolithic church. We are flexible. We are not held together by one belief or by one set of beliefs, but rather we share common values and principles that guide us on our search for meaning and truth. And that search for truth leads us to honestly confront our history while looking imaginatively toward the future, holding tradition in tension with innovation. They are both important, and they are not mutually exclusive. However, what I want to warn us against is a celebration of our tradition that neglects its fullness and complexity—a version of our history that fails to explore our shortcomings, faults, and transgressions.
Much like the people in Copernicus’s time who had to dig deep for humility that would allow them to understand that our knowledge was imperfect and limited, let us be a people who welcome mind-expanding, tradition-breaking knowledge. Let us not deny the reality of our history—jaded though it is—but embrace it in all of its complexity, finding ways to grow and learn from it. Let us not live our lives in the shadows, but let us step into the bold (and even harsh) light of truth. Let us say We; And know who we mean, and each day let us mean one more.
Make it so and amen.